A chill over British press

By Robert Mahoney/CPJ Deputy Director on December 5, 2013 3:22 PM ET

A prime minister says a newspaper has damaged national security and calls for its editor to be brought before Parliament; his government tells the same paper there has been "enough" debate on an issue and sends its security officials into the paper's offices to smash discs containing journalistic material; lawmakers call for the editor's prosecution and accuse the paper of treason; the paper is forced to spirit its stories out of the country to ensure publication overseas.

This is Russia, right? Or Turkey. One of those countries that the Committee to Protect Journalists is always highlighting in its reports on press freedom violations. No, this is the United Kingdom.

The grilling this week by a House of Commons select committee of Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger crystallized the problems of an independent press trying to serve the public interest in a country that lacks robust legal safeguards of press freedom.

Britain is home to a diverse and fiercely competitive press, but the climate for journalists, particularly those covering national security issues, began to grow chilly after the WikiLeaks revelations three years ago. The temperature plunged, however, in July, when the Guardian  started publishing stories based on classified material leaked to it by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The leaks revealed the scale of surveillance of ordinary citizens by the NSA and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters, and their ability to store mountains of data for mining at leisure. The NSA alone stores five billion phone records a day, according to The Washington Post.

The pushback against the Guardian began immediately and the tone was set from the very top with Prime Minister David Cameron issuing veiled threats and exhorting the Guardian to show "social responsibility." He also urged MPs to question the paper, which they duly did on Tuesday as part of a broader investigation into counterterrorism by Parliament's home affairs select committee.

Some of the MPs seemed less concerned that their constituents were being spied on than that the Guardian had refused to take the government on trust and shut up. The hearings are supposed to investigate surveillance, but some members sought to turn the session into a trial of the Guardian.

The questioning, particularly from members of Cameron's Conservative Party, was intimidating and laced with innuendo that the paper had harmed "national security" and, in the opinion of one MP, even broken the law.

"It's not about what you published but about what you communicated," said Tory MP Mark Reckless, referring to the fact that the Guardian had shared the Snowden material with U.S. outlets The New York Times and ProPublica. Snowden himself gave material to The Washington Post.

Rusbridger has said many times that he shared the data because he feared an injunction in the U.K. could have gagged his paper. U.S. outlets, which are constitutionally protected against prior restraint by the First Amendment, would ensure that the Snowden stories were published.

In a clear attempt to intimidate journalists, at least two other MPs besides Reckless have said the paper has likely broken the law.

Rusbridger told the committee he had published only 1 percent of the more than 50,000 Snowden files and despite government bullying would continue to write stories critical of government spying.

"We're not going to be put off by intimidation, but nor are we going to behave recklessly," he said.

Indeed Rusbridger was at pains to assure his audience that the paper had not disclosed information that could harm intelligence operations or operatives. The paper consulted government and intelligence officials more than 100 times before publishing stories, he noted. He quoted Norman Baker, the British Home Office minister; a member of the U.S. Senate intelligence committee, who asked not to be named; a senior Obama administration official; and a senior Whitehall official all saying the paper's disclosures had not damaged national security. He said the information from Snowden was in safekeeping and had been given securely to the U.S. news organizations.

He said the Guardian had been put under pressures that were unheard of in many democracies.

"They include prior restraint; they include a senior Whitehall official coming to see me to say: 'There has been enough debate now'. They include asking for the destruction of our disks. They include MPs calling for the police to prosecute the editor. So there are things that are inconceivable in the U.S.

"I feel that some of this activity has been designed to intimidate the Guardian," he said.

At one point during the hearing, committee chairman Keith Vaz, asked Rusbridger if he loved his country.

"I'm slightly surprised to be asked the question, but yes, we are patriots and one of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of democracy, the nature of a free press, and the fact that one can in this country discuss and report these things," Rusbridger said.

The whole episode was chilling and in stark contrast to the treatment that Britain's three spy chiefs received when they appeared before another parliamentary committee last month. Most MPs did not probe assertions by the heads of GCHQ; MI5, Britain's domestic counter-intelligence and security agency; and MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service that focuses on foreign threats, that the Guardian had harmed national security.

In fact, MPs and others charged with oversight of Britain's intelligence agencies have probably learned more from the Guardian than from their own efforts.

As the terms "national security," "social responsibility," and "patriotism" enter the public debate, the government can deflect attention from the creeping tentacles of U.K. and U.S. spy agencies and onto the mechanics of the journalistic processing of whistleblower material.

The Guardian and its former correspondent Glenn Greenwald, who broke many of the Snowden stories, have served the public interest. They may have embarrassed governments and thwarted attempts by securocrats to keep the maximum amount of information secret, but no one has demonstrated that they have acted recklessly or negligently. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said he has no plans to prosecute Greenwald, a U.S. citizen living in Brazil.

British authorities, however, showed their hand in July by using terrorism legislation to detain Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, who was in transit at Heathrow Airport and seize the journalistic materials he was carrying. The use of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 runs the risk of putting investigative journalism on par with terrorist activity. Press groups have brought a legal challenge in the Miranda case, which the court should uphold. And David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has updated his advice to the British government on the use of Schedule 7 after the Miranda case, requiring grounds for suspicion of involvement in terrorism before a person can be held at a border. 

Following Rusbridger, the select committee interviewed Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick, who confirmed journalists' suspicions that the authorities had lifted information from Miranda's files. Dick, the head of Scotland Yard counterterrorism, said it was "possible that some people may have committed offences."

The Miranda material was being examined to see if Official Secrets Act or terrorism offenses had been committed. "We are continuing with that inquiry. We are taking that carefully. There is a lot of difficult material to find our way into. We will go where the evidence takes us," she added.

Many British journalists I've interviewed doubt that in the end members of the Guardian's staff will be hauled into the Old Bailey to face criminal prosecution. But that's not the point. The threats and posturing by political leaders and officials are having an effect. The British press generally has been far less zealous than their American counterparts in covering the implications of the Snowden revelations and the debate over national security and freedoms. Indeed, some of the strongest defense of the Guardian this week has come from U.S. press organizations and journalists, including Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame.

The intimidation of journalists and news organizations covering the fall-out from the Snowden files is troubling for many reasons, not least because of the signal it sends to authoritarian and repressive regimes around the world. If the editor of a national newspaper in a country with a functioning democracy and 300-year-old tradition of a free press can be threatened and bullied, what more does an autocrat need to do except invoke national security and cite the British example?

In accepting CPJ's Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for a lifetime commitment to press freedom a year ago, Rusbridger told attendees in New York's crowded Waldorf-Astoria ballroom: "Tonight is inspiring because it forces us to stop and remember what journalism can do. It asks us to remember colleagues all around the world who are so brave in the pursuit of truth. And to recognize how, increasingly, bravery is required: what a dangerous thing it often is now to be a journalist."


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